Starting Over

By Sweetprincipale

Post Season 7- Non-canon beginning at the end of the final episode. No comics. Buffy and Spike find themselves trapped in a void between two dimensions, watching their mirror images acting out pieces of their lives in another realm. If both halves can find true love, choose each other, and make some other important choices, Buffy and Spike will have a chance to rejoin their world, and have a chance at starting over from the point where they perished in the Hellmouth.

Author's Note: Smut warning! Mushy, too. Skim if you gotta.

Dedicated to Alexiarrose, Ginar369,Touch the Dark, Omslagspapper, Jewel74, Illusera, Sanityfair1, rororrogers, and SwoonforSirius. Thank you for your encouraging words.

Nothing of Buffy belongs to me, (including any direct lines from the show) except my sincere admiration. However, this story is all mine.


"I need a favor", "I need to set up something", "I need this delivered by Friday." Jim felt like he was never off the phone, and he felt like Ess was going to start suspecting something any minute. Thank God for his beautiful, brilliant little boy, his co-conspirator. Ever since he'd told Sully about his plan to propose to Ess on Friday night, he'd made him his interference runner.

"When I start humming Yellow Submarine, you tell Ess you need something, or want to play, or ask her to read to you, or listen to the guitar- whatever." Jim told him in a hushed voice on Monday night. Sully nodded gravely, then burst into the biggest, naughtiest smile he'd ever seen.

"I'm gonna be like Spy Kids."

"Just don't try swinging from the banister or tapping the phone lines." Jim laughed.

He wanted Friday night to be perfect. He had the ring. He had the place. He had the sitter, and a caterer delivering a picnic. What he didn't have, were the words to ask her. And that was kind of all important.

"Max? It's Jimmy. I need help." He finally picked up the phone on Thursday morning, desperation in his voice.

"What is it? Is it Ess, is it Sully?" His buddy was instantly on high alert.

"No, no. I can't talk to either of them. I really want to talk to Ess, but that won't work because - hey, wait a minute- We all live in a yellow Submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine." Jim sang loudly as Ess and Sully came out of the workout room.

"Ess, will you read me a story?"

"Sure thing, honey." Ess looked surprised and delighted, as she had so often done this past week. "Let me grab a quick shower first."

"Okay." Sully agreed and raced upstairs.

"Hey, Baby." Ess mouthed to Jim.

"Hi, Essie. It's Max. He says hi."

"Hey, Max! See you tomorrow!" Ess blew him a kiss and walked upstairs.

"Okay, it's safe." Jim muttered in a hushed voice into the phone.

"Oh no. You've got PTSD after all. Or paranoid schizoid something. I'll be right there. I'll bring prozac."

"Shut up," Jim laughed. "I don't know what I'm going to say to Ess. How to ask her."

"I have two tried and true suggestions for ya. How about 'Will you marry me?' or 'Will you be my wife?' Very popular and highly successful, so I'm told."

"I know that part, the rest of it. It's supposed to be romantic and poetic. I've got a big reputation to live up to!" Jim growled.

"You could sing to her. She loves your voice."

"I can't sing a proposal!" Jim's voice soared. He looked up, panicked, but no shouts from Ess were heard, no audible gasps. Quickly, he stepped out into the garage. "She'll expect something big. She knows how much I love her, how I feel for her."

"Then tell her that and stick 'will you marry me?' on the end." The brunette suggested. "This isn't my thing, dude. I'm the sitter, not the love god. We could try to channel Barry White for you."

"This is hopeless." Jim groaned. "Thanks for giving me your ear to bend, but I- I'll figure it out myself."

"I didn't do a good job, did I? When I popped the so-called question?" Spike glanced sideways at his lover.

Buffy nodded absently. "Tomorrow night we'll be home! He's going to propose, and she'll accept, they'll have chosen each other and we will finally go home!"

"Pet..." Spike sighed a caution. "The Powers are very tricky. And you know they've made it hard for us so far. Don't- don't get yourself tickets for a departin' flight just yet."

"I know. I know, over excited girl. What did you ask me?"

"Nothin' really." He smiled softly. "Was thinkin' about my proposal. The one I made up here. Wasn't very good."

"It was perfect!" Buffy denied hotly, eyes flashing.

"Not like I'd wanted, Buffy. But I'm not goin' to get all wrapped around it. Cause I still have another proposal to make when I get my girl her big sparkly."

"Spike..." She wrapped her hands around his. "I don't know if we can afford a 'big sparkly'. All I need is you."

"Any ring you fancy, Pet. That's what you'll be gettin' and you won't argue with me." He said forcefully.

"I love you." Her face suddenly split in a big grin. "I won't argue unless it's stolen." She watched his face take on a guarded look and mentally just decided to screw the whole condition-making thing. "What the hell. Steal it. If you have to."

"What are you sayin'?" He cried, eyebrows about to hit his hairline in a look of shock.

"You've got a soul and you're a good man. You're also a vampire and a demon lives in you. I'm betting there's some larceny still operating inside. Gambling, lying, stealing?'

"If needed." He said stiffly. "And never with one of the 'good guys'."

"Highly commendable." She kissed him happily.

"I'm not lettin' you down, Summers." He told her firmly.

"I believe in you." She said simply. They both knew there was nothing more to say.

"There's nothing to say, besides I love you and I want you to be my- my- mine? Or my wife?" Jim practiced in front of the mirror. And it wasn't getting any better. He had a nice plan- he'd rented a beach front cottage for one night. It was quaint, secluded, hardwood floors with French doors facing the sea. He had a picnic supper, complete with chilled champagne, set to be delivered at 7:30 to the cottage. He hadn't ordered flowers and now didn't want to over complicate it further. He was seriously ready to be done with this thing. Confident in her love though he was, he wanted the proposal to be perfect, everything she could want, everything she could dream of.

"Honey! Hurry up!" Ess shouted from the garage.

"Coming!" Jim gave himself a fierce look in the mirror. Do. Not. Screw. This. Up. He looked at his cell phone for the time. Noon. Family afternoon outing, in part to make up for the fact that it would be their date night tonight. The movie didn't start until 12:20, he had time.

They had spent the morning at home practicing guitar, playing a new video game, and putting up the new swing set- which Jim had to admit did not go well. He hoped they didn't have an earthquake or monsoon over night, or the new play set would be all over southern California, as opposed to all over the lawn. Now it was time for the ritual of too much popcorn and Disney movies.

"Daddy, is the swing set going be up by tomorrow?"

"Only if Daddy acquires extreme architect skills overnight." Jim laughed. "Essie? You any good at it?"

"I think I read the instructions beautifully this morning." She rubbed his arm and smirked.

"Well, tomorrow, we both assemble and Sul'll read." If I'm not completely exhausted from ravaging my fiancée all night, he smirked.

"You have that smarmy, smirky look on your face." Ess nudged him. Sully let out a muffled giggle and dove into his book bag for his book on tape and stuck his headphones in his ears when Jim glared at him from the rearview mirror.

"What's going on?" She asked suspiciously.

"Date night's got me hot." Jim whispered to her.

"Oh? Something fun?"

"I hope you'll like it." He swallowed.

"Are you nervous about something?" Ess asked softly. "Did Anna call? Or Liz, or something?"

"I'm just- excited." He covered lamely. "Can't talk about with Sul in the car."

"Oooh, naughty Jim." She giggled coquettishly and Jim felt a surge of heat in his groin.

Lord, the things she did to him. Ten seconds ago lust had been his excuse and now it was a reality. He need to be inside her so badly all of the sudden. She met his eyes as her hand slid into his lap, brushing his newly risen bulge. He bit back a groan, lips curling in that unbelievably sexual snarl and he heard Ess make an answering muted whimper of longing.

"Tonight. I promise." He whispered, clutching her hand.

"I don't think I can wait that long." She confessed, casting a nervous glance back to Sully who was happily engrossed in the audio-book and its paperback accompaniment.

"It's- it's like a craving today. A worse craving than usual, I mean."

"You make me feel that way, too." Jim reached over and rubbed her thigh in slow, torturous circles. "We need to stop this for right now."

"I know." But neither of them moved an inch. "Can I say something?"

"Of course." Jim shifted his eyes to the side to meet hers.

"I know you don't like to compare us to our characters, but this is like the severity of a Spike and Buffy craving." Ess hissed. "Like if I don't get you soon, I'm going to crush you to a wall and pull your clothes off."

Jim froze, and didn't speak. He couldn't speak. Spike was passionate. But he was manipulative. He had a flash back to the scene where he and Ess were on the upper level of the Bronze set. The things he had said- whispered in her ear, murky, dark things. Things he could never say to Ess, because he could never hurt her.

"What happened?" Ess hissed, leaning her head close to his.

"Bronze balcony scene." Jim answered woodenly, but at least his hand was touching hers again.

"You have the sexiest voice in the world." Ess whispered.

"It's the things the voice says." Jim countered.

"Remember how much he loves her. He'd do anything for her. Can you blame him for wanting her right there and then?"

"No." He admitted, but he still looked troubled.

"I wish they'd stop bringing up the painful bits." Spike mumbled.

"It's okay." Buffy comforted. "We got through it. We're stronger now." She gave him one of her sunny smiles and he reluctantly grinned back.

"I'm sorry you couldn't trust me back then, Luv. An' lookin' back, guess you were wise to feel that way." He shook his head fiercely, and punched his leg suddenly, viciously, repeatedly. "Stupid! Stupid wanker! What in hell was I thinkin'? What in hell was I playin' at?"

"Stop! Spike, stop!" Buffy's hand shot out and grabbed the fist on it's fifth downward plunge. "I hurt you just as much. God, I wish I could rip out my tongue for every time I ever said you were evil, or beneath me, or anything hurtful. You forced yourself to be whatever I needed, even if I didn't know I needed it. I love you. I loved you then, too. I loved you on all those days we've watched them act out, I loved you during every bad thing they brought up, but I still pushed you away as hard as I could back then."

"Enough, Pet. We do this over and over again, don't we?" He wrapped his hands around hers. "You pushed me 'til I pushed you back- and then I pushed you 'til you slammed me into various bits of buildings and furniture." They shared a smile that only they could really know the depths of.

A pause.

"Think they'll understand when we get back?"

"Some won't, some will. But we don't care, do we Luv?"

"No. We don't. If they give us a hard time- well, it's a big world. Lots of evil. We'll move." Buffy forced an unconcerned grin on her face.

Spike held her close. "No, Goldilocks. We don't leave your pals again. If they don't like it, we tough it out. Eventually they'll come around."

"What if they don't?" She rested her head on his shoulder, greenish eyes seeking his bluish ones.

"Then we call in our favors. They have to be nice to us -as a couple- for one week per life savin'. An' a month for each apocalypse averted. Should get us through the first year." Spike laughed into her hair, and she laughed into his chest as she snuggled deeper into his lap.

"Should we maybe start working out what we're going to say? When we get back?" Buffy asked.

"Tell 'em the truth, it'd be easier. An' you know they won't give a damn what you say at first, they'll be so happy you're alive."

"They're gonna be happy you're alive too! Especially Dawn."

"Well, no denyin' that one, Buffy. Bit's gonna squeeze me to death and shriek me to deaf. Thank God I'm a vamp or I wouldn't survive the homecomin'." He laughed, and let a little optimism stir inside his mostly negative mindset. "Maybe we'll get to find out about it tomorrow."

"Where are we going tonight?" Ess asked Jim as they arrived home and began unloading the grocery bags they'd picked up on the way from the movies. "Sully, you go on and play, honey." Ess advised. "Here, take the cat food into the sunroom first."

"Little man, I need to talk to you for a little bit before Uncle Max comes."

Sully dragged the cat food out to the sunroom, picked up his kittens and trotted off to play until he was called.

"D'you want me to leave the chicken and edamame out for tomorrow's dinner?" Jim asked as he began unpacking the grocery bags.

"Sure. Where are we going tonight?" Ess asked more pointedly.

"It's a surprise." Jim caged. "We'll leave at 6. It's a surprise I think you'll like."

"Very mysterious." Ess purred, and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I'm sure I'll love wherever it is."

"I'm- I have to go do something, I'll be right back." Jim fled the kitchen and left Ess standing bemused, holding a bag of fresh green beans and a pound of shrimp, staring after him.

He packed the overnight bag in a blur, all of his things and her things thrown together in one bag, for sake of stealth. Easier to get one little bag into the trunk of his car rather than two.

"Jimmy? What should I wear though? Is it a formal place, is it casual?"

Oh hell. Now how to answer that without giving it away? Jim pondered quickly. Casual would be nice, it would be a picnic, hopefully on the beach. However, did you want to get proposed to in jeans and a tee shirt? "Something like business casual?"

"Are you kidding me?" Ess hollered up.

"Um, no?" Jim replied.

"You mean I need to wear slacks and a button down shirt?"

"I was hoping more for one of your skirts and nice top. An outfit you really like, okay?" Jim was also dressing in a casual button up white shirt, left unbuttoned over a black tee shirt, and black khaki pants. Locking the door behind him, he began digging through a box of his things, odds and ends from his dresser- there it was, his lighter and the digital camera. Candles. They had candles in the bedroom, he threw those in as well. Lastly, the ring box. He tucked it into the zip pocket of his khakis and pulled the tab.

I still have no idea what to say, he realized. Hell. Bloody, bloody, buggering hell. "And now I'm channeling Spike." He told his reflection as he brushed his teeth and hair, making sure he looked immaculate for their big night. "Ah well. He does have a way with curses." He gave the mirror his best Spike "You know you want me, Buffy" look and it hit him. He had a brilliant idea- at least for part of it, for how he would propose.

In a flash Jim's phone was to his ear. "Front desk? Is the scenery crew working on the Buffy set? Um, let me speak to the foreman, would you?" A pause. "It's Jim. No, it'll be quick. Yes, I'll hold." Jim bit his lip and spiked his hair nervously, letting the longer hair on top curl sexily. "Oh. Mr. Brooks, Mike? It's Jim. How late are you guys working tonight?... Would it be possible for me to stop over tonight, around 6:30? I wanted to look over some things... What sets are still up? Good! Oh perfect, the crypt is there-but part of it still has the fake debris? No, that's fine. You are a saint, dude, and I owe you one! We'll be out of there by 7:30, I promise. Will anyone be on the set? Wonderful."

"Hey, Jimmy." Ess called softly from the hallway. "Can I come in? I need to change."

"Sure, lover." Jim silently unlocked the door and swung it open, keeping the bag tucked behind the door.

"Sul was asking for you. Didn't you need to talk to him before Max gets here?"

"Yeah," he said distractedly, kissing the side of her face, and heading out.

"Babe." Ess put out her hand. "Is- is something wrong? We don't have to go out."

"Yes, we do!" Jim stared at her, making his eyes actually focus for the first time since they left the grocery store, and noticed she looked worried. "Ess, what's the matter?" He wrapped his fingers gently around hers.

"You've been acting a little bit weird this afternoon. I think I shouldn't have talked about work stuff. I'm really sorry, Jim." She heaved a deep breath. "And I know I said we're getting over it, but maybe we're not. And it scares me that maybe I'm the one making it worse."

"What? No, Ess. You're the only one helping me get over it. You're the only one I talk to about- anything bad or weird from the show. I don't feel comfortable talking to anyone else. Not in depth." He pressed his head to hers to stare into her eyes. "I'm distracted because I'm excited to get you alone tonight, and if I don't keep busy, I'm in a world of trouble, Baby. And you know what I mean." He pulled her snugly to himself, letting his pelvis tilt into hers, kissing her breathless and then letting her go.

"Wow." Ess fanned herself.

"That might not have been a very good answer. You were talking about some pretty deep things." He smirked, but his eyes were serious.

"I know. That's okay. As long as there isn't anything bothering you, we're good to go. I'm gonna go shower real quick." She kissed him and gave him a wink. "You look absolutely edible, by the way." The tanned actress sauntered off into the bathroom.

As soon as she shut the door, the actor heaved a sigh of relief, grabbed the small black suitcase and flew down the stairs, jumping the railing about halfway down, no challenge considering the stunts he'd done. "Be right down, Sul!" He yelled as he flew to the living room, grabbing the black acoustic guitar already shut in its case, not on its stand, ran past the basement door and out to the garage. The bag and case safely stowed, he took another deep breath of relief and walked slowly down the stairs.

"Dad. I made something to help you." Sully greeted him with a grave expression.

"Help me?" Jim smiled at him. "Help me what?"

"Make Ess know we love her!" Sullivan rolled his eyes and practically cried "duh". If Jim hadn't been so touched he would have made him give the answer again without the 'tude. But as it was, he sat beside him, voice losing all traces of amusement.

"Thank you, Sul. What'd you make, sweetie?" Jim gave him all the attention in the world, no other thought in his mind except that his little boy was the biggest miracle on earth, the perfect blend of innocence and wisdom, playfulness and kindness, and he was damn lucky to have him.

The child looked around furtively before reaching under a couch cushion and pulling out a slightly wrinkled piece of white drawing paper. "I hid it, in case Ess came down here." He spread it across Jim's lap and began explaining his art work, pointing to the page as he went. "See? Here are all three of us, and Mist and Stripes. And I put in the three hearts because there are three of us. And the paw prints are for Mist and Stripes. And this says 'we love you really much' and this says 'familee'. Is that spelled right?"

"Spelled fine." Jim said gruffly.

"Dad! You're dripping on the paper!" Sully snatched the paper off of Jim's legs and blew on it frantically. Jim dabbed the water spot from his single tear with the hem of his shirt, and placed it carefully on the coffee table, before grabbing Sully in a bone bruising hug.

"I love you." He rubbed his damp cheek to his son's forehead. "My little boy. That- that's the best gift. God, Sully, the ring is going to look pretty shabby next to this." He gently picked the paper up again and stared at it admiringly. "You're right. This is really going to help." Sully beamed, and Jim gave into his gnawing fear a little bit. "Hmrmm." He cleared his throat. "You didn't do this- just to be polite or anything?"

"Polite?" Sully frowned inquisitively.

"I think Ess will love it. I just want you to give it 'cause you want to give it, not because you feel like you have to." Jim tried to explain in simple terms.

"Do I have to?" Sully asked.

"No, son. Not at all." Jim rubbed his back.

"But can I anyway?"

"Yes! It's a beautiful job. Here, we'll put it right in this pocket, next to the ring. I'll give her both tonight." He hugged him again. "You know if you need to talk to me about this, anything that bothers you or you wonder about, you can always come talk to me. Always."

"Daddy? This whole thing is a lot of thinking. Kind of-weird. But I still like it."

"Good." Jim breathed quietly.

Then the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it!" Sully shouted and tore off. Jim followed much more slowly. If Ess turns me down, I'll- I don't know what I'll do now. She'd be rejecting both of us. She won't reject us at all, what am I thinking? But just in case... the ring first, wait until we get a solid yes, then the picture. Just so she doesn't choose for his sake. She's got to want me.

Xander's counterpart clomped down the stairs, towed by Sully. "Jim. You look- surprisingly not in need of a straight-jacket." He came over to his friend who was slowly rising from the couch. "Good luck. She's gonna say yes." He rubbed Jim's nearest shoulder furiously. "Now, did you figure out what to say?"

"Sort of." Really wish he hadn't mentioned that. "But I have a pretty clever idea to go with it. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow."

"Aren't you gonna call and say goodnight?" Sul looked slightly freaked out at that prospect.

"Yes, sweetie, we will call and let you know what- what's going on." Jim pulled Sully into a hug.

"I'm ready, is Max here?" Ess's voice drifted down, sounding like she was halfway between the first and second floor.

"No one mention anything." Jim ordered violently, and stormed the stairs. "We're coming up! Max is here. Now, in case we're late, bedtime is at 8:30 sharp. Dinner is left over veggie lasagna. PG or G movies. Cats in the sunroom- if you want to put them there after Sully goes to bed." Jim rattled off instructions.

"Yes, mein herr." He gave a mock salute, and Jim gave him a mock sideways punch.

"Yo, Bro!" Ess clicked her way into the kitchen, in white summer strappy heels, a calf length white flowy skirt and a soft clinging pink shirt.

"You look beautiful. Can't believe you're mine." Jim came and put his arm across her waist.

"Got him on a leash, Essie." Her on screen and offscreen best buddy kissed her cheek in greeting. "Which is good, cause y'know he bites."

"Not the likes of you." Jim gave him an intimidating Spike-like glare. "Alright. We're ready to go?" Ess nodded. "Thanks man. Have a nice time. Sully, be good. I love you." He folded him in a longer than normal hug.

"I love you, too, Dad." Sully held back tight, a strange look on his face.

"Night Sully." Ess bent and kissed his head swiftly, gasping slightly as the boy wrapped both arms around her neck and pulled her into a tight, chokingly tight, hug.

"Love you, Ess."

"I love you too!" She hugged him back and his arms slowly fell away. He bolted to Jim again, latched on to his waist.

"Have fun now." Jim whispered softly, and tenderly stroked the child's velvety cheek. Ess felt a weird prickle in her spine. Something had passed between father and son. She didn't know if it was a good or bad thing.

"Come on, Suslter!" Max's voice boomed into the stillness, shattering it effectively. "I challenge you to some Madden Football madness." He hoisted Sully up in a football hold, making him laugh and look a little bit dizzy. " Have fun, you two!"

Jim seized Ess's hand and pulled her out to the car. "Hope you like the surprise, Darling."

"I'm beyond excited and curious to see where we're going." Ess slid into her seat and scooted her skirt free before Jim could shut the door on it.

"You'll see soon." He put on the radio for some distraction noise, trying to alleviate some of the need to talk. God knows how he would say anything around the heart in his throat.

"Do I get a hint?"

"Sure. Let me see. You've been there before. And when you see the place, please don't slap me." Jim felt himself relax as his sweetheart's hand caressed his neck.

"That just confuses me." Ess laughed.

"Then I'm doing my job." He teased.

"You're so bad."

"I'm good when I'm bad." He preened, licking his lips.

"Don't you dare get me all ready for you again. We still have someplace to be, and the way I've been feeling all day - we'll end up at a cheap motel instead of whatever nice thing you have planned."

"You guessed!" Jim pretended to look shocked and disappointed. "And I worked so hard..."

"Oh come on, Jim." She laughed. He turned his blue eyes to her, making them melt, putting his soul in them. "Oh! Oh, Jimmy, I didn't- I mean a night away with you anywhere would be-"

"I don't know whether to be flattered you have such implicit faith in my honest nature, or worried that I'm so good that I convinced you." Jim laughed, dodging her cuffing blows on his arm as she lashed back in wounded pride.

"I knew you were kidding! Yes, I did. Totally duped you with my big comforting look-"

"Truce! You're gonna mess up my hair." He fended her off.

"This better be one damn nice place." She pouted, lowering her hands.

Jim gulped. "Here we are."

"We're at the studio?" Ess gaped.

"Mmmhmm. Trust me on this." He spoke with much more confidence than he felt.

He took her arm and led her into the studio. He felt like the ring box weighed a ton, felt like he might as well limp, felt like it was the most obvious thing in the world, but she didn't even look down.

"Good evening, you two." The front desk guard waved them in.

"We don't come here that often in the summer. Did they know we were coming? What are we doing here?" Jim smiled secretively. Ess looked over her shoulder as they headed out to the set where they spent about sixty hours a week, almost every week, of the year. "What are we doing here?" Ess repeated.

"Field trip." He walked her inside and wandered towards the Bronze set, the balcony and the lower level joined by riser platforms. "This is the first place we danced together."

"We never danced-" Ess stopped. "Oh. We did."

"I don't remember the band. But they weren't bad. You were- you were amazing."

"You were very kind. I was- what got me acting that way?"

"Ashley made you a bet that she could out dirty dance you."

"I don't think we won." Ess laughed.

"No one won. Pat called it off, said we were going to end up filmed and on the net if we didn't stop. 'Buffy the Vampire Layer', he said."

"So you brought me here to remind me that I'm a sleaze on the dance floor?"

"I brought you here, because you chose me to dance with. Max was there, Patrick, and any number of the young hotties who play vamps or those soldier boys. But you picked me. Why?"

"Cause- I felt- like I could do what I wanted, get wild, and you would act it out with me and not let me make a fool of myself."

Jim pulled her into a little bump and grind, before pulling her into an exterior stairwell, one leading to the balcony. Here he pushed her head back to the wall gently and began fervently kissing her.

"Wait- I know this one." Ess interrupted the kiss.

"Illuminate, Lover."

"First kiss after the musical. We had just gotten a few weeks advance of scripts." Her voice lowered.

"And we knew it was only going to get worse. And the stage directions- dark and sexual."

"We couldn't talk about it until the day's filming was over and even then, we could only make jokes." She cocked her head. "There's something else, too. What, what am I trying to remember?"

"They had us in shadowy light, and no one minded if it was obscure. Something to do with how obscure the emotions were."

"Hey! Yeah. That was the first time we just were able to relax and orchestrate a kiss the way it felt natural."

"Not that I was getting the vibe I get now-" He hastily clarified as she nodded her firm agreement, "but I was so freakin' glad I had you for those scenes. 'Cause I could trust you, Ess." Then he pointed up to the balcony. "And we already talked about up there today. But just remember I've got you, and I'm not gonna let you fall."

"This is a really, really meaningful surprise, Jim. Thank you." Ess kissed him.

"There's more." They walked through all the different town front sets until reaching the cut out rooms of the Summers' house.

"Here's the living room. We crashed on this couch so many times."

"Yeah and not all of us fit," Ess laughed. "I know what you're getting at. I used to 'call' your lap to sit in, just cause it pissed you off."

"It did not!" Jim laughed. "Okay, maybe a little." He gestured out front to the fake turf and the fake trees and shrubs. "This is where I've gotten to see some of the best foot work and martial arts ever done. You amaze me, Essie." She blushed.

"Spike always waits for Buffy here." Ess caressed the gnarled faux wood tree.

"And I always waited for you in-"

"Dressing room hallway, left hand corner of where the hallway meets the set." Ess said automatically. "Wow. We're predictable."

"But only this year. This year is when I started making sure you walked out okay. Because I didn't know if you would some days. I didn't know if any of us would some days." He shrugged, not quite looking at her.

"Why are you-"

"No questions yet." Jim shushed her.

"Fair enough, it's your surprise. Lead on, McJim."

"For that comment, I ought to just leave you in suspense." She pouted. "But I won't." They walked another long way to "Spike's crypt."

"It's a lot of little things that make people fall in love. Humor, admiration, friendship, trust." Jim murmured, leading her over to the set for the upper level of Spike's crypt. Ess nodded, opened her mouth, and then closed it, smiling tightly, her eyes over bright with hints of tears.

He took a deep breath and started humming. Ess tilted her head as she recognized the tune. "I know I should go, But I follow you like a man possessed, there's a traitor here beneath my breast, and it hurts me more than you've ever guessed, if my heart could beat, it would break my chest -" Jim dropped to one knee and Ess gasped at him, a hand flying to her mouth. "That's all true, Ess. And so is the line You've got a willing slave. I would do anything in the world for you. Those are the only verses that mirror our characters and ourselves." He looked up at her, and she nodded, waiting for him to continue. "Even though it hasn't been very long, we're kind of like Buffy and Spike. We hate to be compared to them, but we have some similarities. Professional work that turned into a personal relationship. Friendship that built into this amazing love, that I can't deny. A relationship that wasn't the smartest or the safest thing to jump into. But I jumped. And I'm hoping-" he slowly unzipped the pocket, thanking God he remembered to kneel on the opposite leg so he wouldn't fumble this, "I'm hoping- you'd take the fall with me." He slid out the white box and looked up at her. "I love you. Marry me?"

"Wh- what?" Ess dropped to her knees as well, her hands trembling as they brushed the closed lid of the ring box.

"Marry me?" Jim repeated. Not a good sign. She needed it repeated and she wasn't all smiles and immediate positive responses. "I know it's fast-"

"You're sure you want me?" Ess looked at him in amazement.

"Yes." He resisted the urge to add on a playful put down, such as "you idiot", but didn't. Ess looked shocked and bewildered.

"How did you know?" She whispered, hands now cradling the box as it rested in his palm.


"Know that I already knew. I knew two weeks ago. I knew two months ago, that I could never let you go, and I wanted you to stay forever."

"I'm offering forever, Ess." Jim reached over her shaking fingers and pried the lid open. "All you have to do is say-'

She cut him off before he could even finish the sentence. "Yes! Yes! Oh, Jim! Jim, yes!" She was sobbing. Elated, hiccuping sobs, that were contagious. He drew her to his chest, both of them laughing and crying, sprawled on the floor, knees, shoes and skirts in a tangle. She was kissing him frantically, and he could barely breathe. Oh well, if I suffocate, I'll have gone very, very happy, he thought in a ludicrous moment. And she still hadn't put the ring on. She said yes to me, not the jewelry. Jim's ego swelled to dangerous levels.

"Here, Baby. Let me put it on." He took her third finger and curled it over his own, slipping the ring from the box and onto its new home. "My Ess."

"My Jim." She echoed, staring in shock at the band. "It's beautiful."

"Beautiful ring for a beautiful woman." He whispered, kissing her hand. She couldn't tear her eyes from the ring for about half a minute. At last she looked up at his face with a wondering expression.

"Thank you." She whispered. "It's really beautiful."

"You're welcome." He kissed her sweetly. And then harder, elation fueling his possessive streak as he grabbed the back of her head and held her in the kiss until they could barely breathe. "Thank you. For being mine. For saying yes."

"Did you think I wouldn't?" She laughed incredulously.

"Not exactly. But I was- nervous." Jim smile was shy, the merest hint of seriousness under it. "Oh hey, here-" he helped her up. "There's grit all over this floor, your pretty skirt'll get dirty."

They stood up, and Ess promptly leaned on him for support. "Essie?" He braced her with one arm, pulling her shoulders straight with the other.

"Knees are all wobbly. Never been proposed to before."

"If you don't count your 80,000 fan proposals?"

"Totally not counting those." She shook her head to clear it and stared at the ring again.

"Do you like it?" Jim asked with a trace of trepidation. He had stopped short of asking if it was too small. If it was, he would personally take the box and shove it down Patrick's throat, yank it out, and attack Max with it. Sully was just a kid, what'd he know about jewelry?

"I love it! It's perfect. How'd you know? To get this one?" Ess asked, gently twisting her hand so the ring caught the light.

"Pat, Max, and Sully helped." Jim admitted. "I'd like to say I have impeccable taste in jewelry, as well as women, but I was worried enough to get a second, third, and fourth opinion." She laughed and buried her head in his shoulder, as he pulled her close and they walked out, arms around each other's waist.

"Where are we going now?" Ess asked.

"More surprise." He waltzed her around suddenly. "My fiancée."

"Mine!" She giggled. "We have to call my mom! We have to call your mom! We have to call everyone!" Ess suddenly froze in mid-turn, and Jim thanked heaven for his reflexes, also coming to an abrupt halt before colliding with her. "The guys already knew?" She demanded.

"Yeah. But they were sworn to secrecy under threat of violent slaughter, or in Sully's case, loss of all television and video game privileges." Her face had taken on an odd, nervous cast, her hands were slipping from his arms.

"Sully. Tonight when you left- he was upset wasn't he? All clingy. He- he didn't want you to ask me, did he?"

"That is not true." Jim countered somberly, voice dropping into a near growling register.

"You don't have to cover for me!" Ess gave his hand a hard squeeze. "You- you can ask again when he's ready, and in the meantime you'll know-"

"What are you saying?" Jim resisted the urge to shout. This was not happening, she was not changing her mind.

"I'm saying, I really want Sully to accept me before you and I do this."

"Oh. Oh good." Jim breathed. "That's a relief." No problem there, he mentally cheered.

"That's a relief?" Ess looked kind of hurt. She had been trying to be noble, and now Jim was just shrugging off her self sacrifice.

Jim caught the irritation in her voice and smirked for a just a hint of a second. Knowing she had accepted him so enthusiastically was going to make him humble and grateful. And also a little bit unbearably smug. They were walking out of the set area, and passing newer scenery, a dark and dusty looking boiler room. Hardly the place to stop and have a romantic conversation, but if you can confess your love in a crypt, you can confess your son's love in a boiler room, he told himself. "Sit down, Baby."

"Not on the floor. There's some kind of black finish on it. I wonder what they'll have us doing in here." Ess said in a strained voice.

"Nothing good, I imagine." Jim sighed, and sat himself down on the edge of a wooden table. "Now you sit here-" he arranged her on his lap, and reached back into his zipper pocket, "-and you look at this." He handed her Sully's folded drawing, trying not to tear up immediately and give it away. Let her see for herself how much the kid wanted her around.

Ess didn't speak as she slowly looked at the picture, her fingers softly tracing the crayon lines, and silent tears forming and then spilling over, which Jim attentively kept wiping away. "Oh," was all she said when she finally spoke. And you can put a lot into one syllable, Jim recalled. There was realization, relief, love, awe, and happiness all churning around in that split second utterance.

"He did it himself this afternoon. I didn't ask him to. He did it because he loves you and wants you around. You make both of us happy. So it's still yes, right, Ess?"

Ess nodded, throat too tight to speak. And then her hiccuping, laughing sobs started up again and he joined in again, this time only laughing, brushing away her tears. "You need to stop, honey, or you'll dehydrate. Must have lost a gallon of fluid in ten minutes." He rubbed his knuckle gently under her eye and she sniffed mightily in an effort to stem the waterworks.

"I- don't care." She sniffed, a laugh working its way in as well. "It's the best day of my life now. I c-can cry all I want." She started over again.

" But you're getting all worked up. You're starting to sound like 'Tara'."

"St-stop." She giggled, with one more hiccup.

"C'mon, you." He tugged her up and out to the parking lot.

"More surprises?" Ess reminded him of their earlier conversation.

"You shall see." He smiled mysteriously. "And I believe you were creating a list of phone calls. Do you want to wait until the second surprise is over?" He contained his sly smile, knowing the surprise was overnight, but aware that she didn't.

"Let's just call Sully. Let's call him as soon as we get to the car." Ess began to run, and Jim chased after her, watching the humid wind whip her hair and skirt around as she flew.

She's all for me, he thought, and he doubled his pace, easily catching her and swooping her around, with the ease of someone who has caught his quarry many times before.

"That's another thing you're good at. Better than anyone else anyway." Ess laughed as he lifted her above his head in the near-deserted lot of the studio. "You're good at catching me when they hurl me into you."

"I just know how to fall, sweetheart." He smiled. "Fell for you literally and figuratively, didn't I?"

"You're going to make bad jokes all night, aren't you?" She winced.

"No, just until we get to the next stop." He smiled, and held out his phone. "Call the house."

They had barely sat in the car together before the phone was answered. Sully must have told Max to put the phone right beside him, wherever they were, Jim thought silently, a pleased expression on his face.

"Hello?" A child's voice demanded.

"It's us." Jim called into the speaker. He and Ess were holding the phone in front of their pressed together heads. "I asked Ess."

"What did she say?" Sully sounded perfectly confident, and Jim knew he expected a positive response. Thank God he was able to give one.

"I said yes, I want to marry your dad and be in your family!" Ess answered.

"WOOOOO! UNCLE MAX, SHE SAID YES!" Sully shouted at the top of his lungs. Ess shrieked with laughter and Jim shoved the phone to a safe distance.

"CONGRATULATIONS!" He yelled into the phone as well, even louder.

"Hey! No deafening. He's a kid, you're not! You've got no excuse for screaming like a banshee in my ear." Jim griped.

"Did you like my picture?" Sully asked in his normal tone of voice, while Max muttered in the background, something between congratulations, an apology for deafening them, and complaint about boring people with their boring phones. Ess and Jim exchanged an amused glance, and then Ess's face became serious.

"Sully, I love your picture. I am so happy- I am honored, to be in your family." She said in a barely shaking voice. Jim squeezed her knee.

"Me too!" Sully said. "Did you like the ring, too? I helped pick it out."

"So did I!" Max chimed in, voice loud, but farther away.

Jim shook his head in defeat, and Ess chuckled. "I love the ring. Good work, team. I'll have to tell everyone about your secret jewelry buying prowess, Max-man."

The couple heard some muffled conversation on the other end of the line, and then Sully's voice piped up. "We love you both very much and-what? Oh, sorry, we both love you very much, and are gonna let you go consummate now."

"What? Maximilian!" Jim yelped, and Ess shoved her elbow over her mouth to prevent her guffaw from getting out.

"Celebrate! Celebrate, Jim! I swear, that's what I said."

"No, you didn't!" Sully protested.

"Enough! Ess and I are going to get on to the next part of our evening." Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose, staving off a pang of headache. "We love you both, too. Some more than others." He added significantly, and hung up.

"Any second now..." Buffy repeated, for maybe the tenth time.


"Shhh! Any second now..." She squeezed her eyes shut and willed them home with every ounce of concentration.

"Buffy, Luv..." Spike's voice was more firm this time.

"Stop talking! It's not going to work if you're talking!" Buffy glared at him, desperation in each syllable. Spike nodded, and bowed his head, looking at their linked hands, and then up at her. Such a brave beauty. My girl could move the world and turn back time if she only had long enough.

Buffy bowed her head, letting the tops of their heads touch as they sat, facing each other, hands locked. She'd been sitting like that since before Jim and Ess even left the house. "He's gonna propose and she'll say yes, they'll have made their choice and we can go home. Here, don't let go of me. We're not getting ripped apart in some cross-dimensional whirlwind." Spike gently tried to point out that it might not happen, but fell silent when he saw the hope in her eyes.

Let her hope for a bit. We might be headin' out, after all. Even in the timeless void, they could tell the night was passing. Spike drew them deeper and deeper into their shadowy shield. No more watching the other halves tonight. Too painful to see it all coming together, but not taking them with it.

"Buffy." She didn't shush him this time. "Buffy- I'm sorry,"

"Not your fault." She said in a small voice.

At times like this, when she curled up against him, he couldn't believe the things he had seen his woman do. Fight things that had scared him shitless, and never backed down. Even when beaten she remained unbowed. And now she looked like a scared little girl, deserted and alone. He rocked her against his chest, one hand still clasped in hers, the other cradling her back. "Don't fret, Luv."

"Don't try to make me angry, okay? I know you try to get me to fight back because it gives me determination and stuff. But there's nothing that I can fight in here, but you. And that won't solve anything."

"I wasn't tryin' to cheer you, I was tryin' to offer you some comfort. An' as for fightin', you might be surprised how much it helps. You know you always like a bit of the rough and tumble." He gave her a mischievous grin that failed to reach his eyes. Her smile barely even twitched the corners of her mouth before her head dropped down into the cleft of his shoulder again. Slowly, sobs began to rack her body and Spike grew truly worried. Some tiny part of him had expected the whole "whiz-boom, back to the smoldering remains of Sunnyhell" to occur. But it hadn't. He hadn't seen her cry like this in - well, it was timeless realm for them, but in a very long "time". And it scared him. They were equally matched. She rallied him and he rallied her. Without her strength, he had to use his bluff and bluster.

"Right then. We've got a puzzle, haven't we?"

"Not now, Spike."

"Yes, now. You think your Watcher'd hold off on the research? Now, let me see. Think like a borin', nancy priss named Rupert..." That earned him a swift slap to the chest, but he didn't mind. "I tend to tune him out, actually, Pet. What load of tosh would he lead off with?"

"He'd suggest staking you to shut you up." Buffy said dryly. They shared a slow smirk.

"Yes, an' after you fend him off because of your secret, maddenin' desire for me, he'd say...?"

"To consult some humungous book in some unreadable language. Then tell Willow to get on the computer, because he's afraid to get on himself."

"Even I'm better at technology and I've been dead for longer than he's lived. What's the deal?"

"I don't think it helped that his first encounter with the internet was when a demon was scanned into the school's system and tried to kill all of us."

"Now, somehow I've missed that tale. Good for later, yeah? Back to what he'd actually say next though, bein' as we are short on books."

"Umm. I actually- used to tune him out a lot too." Buffy admitted sheepishly.

"Knew I loved you for more than just the hot little body."

"Shh! Trying to think!" Buffy massaged her temples. "You know this isn't actually going to help, right?"

"But it keeps your mind off it." Spike said firmly, coldly. He wouldn't allow any pity to derail her once she'd stopped sobbing.

"He'd probably ask what the Powers said. And then I'd say we have another half in another dimension. They have to overcome obstacles and choose each other. Once they do, we get to go home."

"Wait." Spike had a good memory. Came with holding grudges, plotting revenge, and meeting a whacking great number of people it didn't do well to forget over the last hundred some years. "That isn't exactly what they said."

"Yes, it is." Buffy defended heatedly.

"No, it isn't all they said."

"Are you sure you remember? You were busy threatening to give everyone black eyes and 'damn good thrashin's' if they didn't let me go. Kind of heroic. Really heroic. And dumb."

"Told you my blood doesn't exactly rush in the direction of my head. 'Specially not where you're concerned, Luv." He gave her a brief seductive smile and then moved back to the subject at hand. "They said the other halves must choose each other- like us."

"Isn't that basically what I said?" Buffy demanded. He growled at her and she backed off. "Okay, sorry. The vamp from California still has the floor."

"They also said 'The same choices must be made.' Not just about choosing each other. Choices in general."

"Then we're so screwed. Who chooses to become stuck in a void?"

"I did know this one bloke- but no, anyway, choices. Choices that they could make. We know they don't deal in the mystical."

"And- and it would have to be choices we could still make, because we don't have access to the physical!" Buffy looked pleased with herself. "Spike! Giles would be so proud of us! Go me!"

He choked back a laugh. If she accepted his demon, he could accept her inner blonde. "So choose each other- check. Choices we can still make, and they can still make. List?"

"Sure, I've got my ethereal ballpoint in my ethereal purse." Buffy griped.

"Mental list." Spike brooded for a minute.

"Intangible stuff. Love. Trust. Acceptance. I think we both have those."

"Gotta be somethin' else then."

"Choices could mean decisions?" Buffy looked thoughtful. "Ooh! I know! We both decided to get married. And therefore we should be home by now." She glared upwards, fully expecting the Powers to see it.

"Partnership, workin' together. We've both done that."

"Children. We want some- if we could. I mean, it says a choice and a choice is a want, even if you might not get it. Right?" Buffy felt his arms tighten around her and gave a brief nod.

"They've already got a li'l boy." Spike said hoarsely. "Tiddler's a given."

"What are we missing?" Buffy looked up at him with hopeful eyes.

He hated to disappoint her. "I dunno, Luv." They sat in silence again. The only motion in the cloud-like nest was Spike's comforting rocking.

"Tell me we're gonna get home?"

"We're together, Luv. That's home." Spike avoided the question. He wasn't going to lie to her right now, even for false hope. "Init? You and me? Birds in our little nest agree an' all that?"

"I guess. I mean, yes." Her eyes met him full of love and a tiny spark of fire. "We're 'home'. We're going to get back home, too. We've already started changing. We're on the right path."



"Your lips are pink. Very, very light, pale pink." Spike, in all the grief, and closed eyes, and bowed heads, hadn't looked at her properly, at least not below the eyes. He kissed them like he was getting a little taste of heaven.

"Seriously?" Buffy asked, inspecting him as he pulled back.

"Oh, very seriously, Luv. So what I think, is this then. They've started their journey. Maybe the finish line is-"

"The wedding?" Buffy cried.

"Makes sense to me. So get comfy. These famous types alway take for-bleedin'-ever to get hitched."

"Yeah, I'm all about the being legally bound to the man I love. Screw the dress."

"I will, Pet, if you're still in it." Spike's eyes took on a sudden predatory gleam and his tongue traced over his lips. Buffy sat back, puzzled.


"Let's see if anything else of yours is turning pink, shall we?"

"You rented a beach front cottage? In Malibu?" Ess looked incredulously at her partner.

"Yes." He couldn't really deny it. There was nothing else out on this lonely stretch but secluded lanes of property, weekend homes for the wealthy, or homes for the shrewd businessman to rent out for those wanting to live the dream. He scanned the signs for the small road they would take to the out crop of the beach. Thanks to the longer days, they still had plenty of natural light, and he would still make it to the place in time for a sunset picnic.

"We're never going to make it home at a decent hour!" Ess laughed, not angry, but surprised.

"I know. Everyone's having a sleep over."

"You've got to stop spoiling me!" Ess protested. "Honestly, I- is that the place?"

"It is." Jim beamed at her reaction. The cottage was white stucco with black shutters and big white rose bushes out front, with white ribbons wrapping around the wrought iron railings. "I told the man it was for my fiancée and I to celebrate our engagement. As to spoiling you- you are only getting engaged once, sweetie." He said significantly. "I want it to be memorable." He gave out a contented sigh as he helped her from the car. "However, after we get back to the realities of bills and fees, I guess I won't be able to spoil you like you deserve. But that's okay, isn't it?"

"It's beyond okay. All I want is to be with someone who really loves me. And accepts me. And in terms of tangibles, all I'm looking for is meaningful presents for major holidays and life events and date nights once a week."

"Will do, Love." He kissed her cheek and slid her fingers through his. "Let me just get our over night items..." he pulled the black bag out of the trunk and Ess reverently picked up the guitar case and held it in her free hand, "and dinner should be here."

"You thought of everything." Ess gaped.

"No, I panicked everything together." He admitted. He slid the key out of his wallet and into the lock, swinging the door open to reveal a beautiful hardwood floor and classically elegant dining room. "But I think it looks beautiful..." They found the picnic and champagne sitting inside the alcove as they opened the door. "mainly because you're in the middle. You like?"

"Perfect. Like you. You're so sweet. You really are a romantic."

"And you're just finding this out now?" He laughed.

The cottage had a hard wood living room with soft blue and off-white couches and long off-white drapes surrounding the french doors. "It opens right on the beach. And providing no freak storms or gusts, we're having a sunset picnic outside."

"Do you wanna check out the bedroom first?" Ess threaded her hands through his hair, watching his head roll back, and he plopped the bag down on the nearest couch.

"We should eat soon or we'll miss the sunset, lover."

"We could be quick..." Ess mouthed his ear and nipped his neck.

"Ess, stop tempting me. Our first time as an engaged couple is going to be special. And take a very, very long time." Jim savored the feeling of her kisses and let out a harsh breath before kissing every inch of the cheek and neck he could reach while she was working on his ear.

"But you tempt me, all the time." Ess breathed, raking his shirt up so she could get at his skin, his muscles.

"I'm not trying to. Not all the time." He admitted with a sultry smile. Her hand found his zipper and he groaned as she tried to work her thumb into his waist band. "Wait, wait. Dinner first. If you can't wait for dessert, we'll come back in."

"Sunset means that much?"

"It's the memory you're going to keep, the day you got engaged, the things we did. So yes, it means that much."

They ate the cold chicken picnic and all the fancy little hors d'oeuvres and washed it down with champagne, just enough for a toast. Then they walked the beach, trousers rolled up and skirt hiked so they could walk in the breaking waves. Ess walked farthest from the water, her ring hand held out in the air, as far away from the water as possible.

"Will you stop that? I feel like I'm holding onto a tightrope walker." Jim admonished.

"This ring is not getting lost in the Pacific."

"Then let's go put it back in the box. We'll lock it in the house or the car." Jim suggested patiently.

"This ring does NOT leave my finger!" Ess looked aghast.

"Oh, fine then. Me and my tightrope walker, out for a stroll." Jim sighed.

"You know you love me for my eccentricities." She said complacently.

"Such as the ability to judo flip a three hundred pound man in a slippery rubber suit and recite whole sections of every performance you ever gave?"

"Hey! You have strangeness too! The ability to jump neatly through glass windows without getting cut, and play music without the notes- and a really, curly tongue." Jim turned sharply and quirked his scarred eyebrow. "And really flexy eyebrows..."

"My eyebrow makes you hot?" He laughed, but it was a dark, deep laugh that made her center liquify almost instantly.

"You're going to be my husband. Everything about you is going to get me hot." Jim looked at her open mouthed. "What?"

"You said husband. I like it. I mean- I've been called it before. But I like it better now. This time around, I know what it's worth." Ess blushed and ducked her head into his shoulder.

"Does anything about me get you hot?"

"What, are you stupid?" Jim laughed hoarsely, and ducked a blow that wasn't pulled. "Essie, every single part of your body makes me insane. You have the prettiest face, and the sparkling eyes and those cute little lips. Plus, oh my God, under the clothes..."

They exchanged a a sideways look. "Oh, look. The moon's rising." Ess said in a falsely surprised voice. "No more sunset."

"Race you?" Jim asked, his voice getting raspier with desire.

"Oh yeah." Ess tore off at a sprint and Jim lunged after her.

He caught her just as she passed through the door, and they both skidded, her first, him immediately after, in a puddle of melted ice that had been in the champagne bucket, and went flying across the polished floor. "Essie!" Jim grabbed her, swung her to the front of him and landed on his rear, with her flopped across him. "You okay?"

"You do know how to fall." Ess laughed. She started to rise, and Jim pulled her back down.

"Not yet." He muttered, kissing her. She pulled him back and his hands found the waist band of her skirt and tugged.

"We'll ruin the floor." She gasped. "It's polished wood."

"We'll move in a second." Jim panted hungrily. No one moved, in a second or in the next five minutes.

"We're ruining the floor." Ess whimpered as his hands found her sweet spot inside with one probing finger. Jim looked up, saw the white linen table cloth hanging off the edge of the dining room table, and tugged. Two candle sticks flew down around them, and then Jim threw the table cloth on the floor and rolled them onto it.

"There. We can move though, if you want. Special engagement first time."

"We'll, I've never been on a table cloth before..." Ess teased.

"Then we'll have the first course here, and move to the bedroom after..." He purred, before his mouth plummeted down to devour her.

About fifteen minutes later, the couple, naked and covered with streaks of various fluids, walked to the master bedroom. That is to say, Jim walked and Ess was wrapped around him, her legs crossed around his waist and her arms clinging desperately around his neck as one strong arm clutched her mid back and the other swung the black valise along.

"This is nice." Jim looked around pleased as they entered the large airy bedroom, simply furnished, everything in white and blue, a big queen size bed in the center, flanked by two windows. Jim tried to set Ess on top of the plush white comforter but she wouldn't let go. "Hey! I've got candles to light, missy. If you don't want singed cheeks you should let me put you down." Ess slid off, with a pout, dropping to her knees on the bed. He pulled out the two pillar candles that were usually on Ess's dresser and his lighter, and Ess crawled to the edge of the bed and stretched to open the windows. The ocean breeze and crash of the waves gave the perfect, soothing but relentless background noise.

"Relentless." Ess murmured.

"What was that, precious?" Jim lit the last candle and returned to the bed.

"The waves are relentless. They just pound and pound." She turned to look at him, a frown tracing her lips. "I'm not poetic, and yeah, I know it's been going on for years and years, but it just reminded me of you."

"Large and crashing into things?" He came beside her and stroked her neck, kneading her shoulder with his fingers.

"Large, yes..." She closed her eyes, head lolling back. He took the opportunity to move closer and planted a kiss on her cleavage. "But relentless. You never stop. Stop helping me. Stop loving. Stop until I'm ready to stop. That's so amazing. I love you, Jim."

"Love you, too." He pulled her close and she magically, as if able to read his thoughts as well as his body language, sat astride him, his legs crossed under hers, her legs wrapping around his waist again. She tried to pull him inside herself only to be met with resistance, one of his hands holding his tip up to rub against her.

"Hey!" She huffed a tiny moan of protest.

"First." He nibbled her lips and wrapped his hands firmly around her shoulders, beginning a massage. Ess twitched once and then fell pliant, making happy and relaxed moans as he massaged her back and neck.

She panted and pressed herself in hard to her lover, massaging his back in turn, stroking her wet cleft against him, feeling a sharp tingle of pleasure each time he slipped up through her folds and hit the underside of her clit.

"Ahhh." Jim breathed as her thumbs found the last knot in his neck and obliterated it. "We'll get some soon then. Because I love this. Love making you feel so good, Essie. And whatever you're doing to me, I don't know, Baby, but wow."

Ess giggled, pleased with herself. Maybe it was because Jim was older and he'd had two long term relationships, but whenever she pleased him, she felt extra accomplished. Extra sensual, a sex goddess, able to make one of the hottest men in America tremble the way he made her tremble. And she knew him enough to know that he wasn't just on the verge of a middle age crisis, chasing after a young thing to make him feel better about himself. He already knew he was sexy, and he was at ease with himself. Confidence must be contagious, she thought, just before she struggled out of his warm embrace enough to latch on to his shoulders and plunge him inside her.

The way his head snapped back told her that was the right move. "Sorry, Baby," she purred in a completely unapologetic tone, "couldn't wait any more."

He held her onto him, grinding in a circle on the inside, his pelvic bone grating against her hot little nub on the outside.

"Oh my God." She breathed, head thrown back as well, her hands raking him, and sliding, gliding over his sweating shoulders in ecstasy as he brought her close to the edge.

"Go ahead, Lover, let go." Jim urged her softly.

"But you-"

"Saving it for the second round." He grinned through clenched teeth, which only made the planes and angles of his face more irresistible.

"Honey-" Ess protested more weakly.

"You're almost there. My beautiful one. Future-" He tipped her back suddenly, keeping inside her, but now he was on top, and he rutted in her, hard and fast, making her lose control. "wife." He smirked, knowing that word would be her undoing. "Ohhhhh." He let out a grunt of supreme effort, not releasing although she was doing her damnedest to force him to, squeezing the life out of him with her pussy and her sweet little noises.

She exploded around him, but barely paused a beat, before seizing his hair in one of her hands, pushing on his chest with the other.. "Your turn." she said fiercely.

"Not until you have one more." He laughed.

"Oh, I'll have one." She smiled wickedly, rolling on top of him, mounting in one slick descent. "Watching you lose it is the biggest turn on. Plus feeling your heat erupting inside me, coating me-"

"Stop!" Jim squeezed the hand on his chest, caressing the ring on it as he did so.

"What's wrong?" Ess stopped, straddling him.

"When you talk like that..." He let out a lustful growl from somewhere deep in his chest.

"Talking about how much I love when you spill inside me?"

"Essie!" His eyes widened. "Seriously, baby, gonna make me..."

"I want your cum." She licked the first finger on her free hand seductively. "I bet you taste nice..."

Like a rocket, he winced, as he spent inside her. So much for waiting for her to join him. Ess's explosive shudderings and banshee like howls made him smile. Oh good. Mission accomplished after all.

"They're home, they're home, they're HOME!" A brown haired torpedo, followed by a much larger brown haired torpedo hurtled from the backyard to the kitchen.

"Hey, hey!" Ess hugged Max as Jim swooped up Sully. "Nice job you guys. I love it!" Ess flashed them the stone, making it glint in the light.

"You don't look so good, Jim." Max teased as he traded partners with the boy. "Not much sleep?" He asked in a lugubrious undertone.

"A couple hours." Jim admitted. "Probably four. Hey, not in front of the kid. Not in front of you either, come to think of it. For all I know, you and Ess end up together next year and I don't want you replaying what I tell you when you kiss her."

"That is so not in the cards. But still. Weirdness. I'd prefer to not think about the two of you making loud-" Ess humphed sharply behind them, where she stood, hands over a giggling Sully's ears. "Making a loud batch of pancakes for breakfast!"

"You are so lame, Max." Ess dropped her hands and put them on her hips.

"We already ate." Sully reminded him.

"So did we. Guess we need to go put up the play set, huh?"

"Let's go."

"What do I call you now?" Sully asked Ess in a smaller than usual voice as they headed to the backyard.

"Just Ess." She smiled. "I know I'll never be your mom. But I'm going to love you as much as if I were. All you have to do is love me back a little bit ."

"Good." Sully replied, voice returning to normal volume. "But I do love you really much. Just like I said in the picture."

Jim put an arm around each of them and squeezed. "I am the happiest man in the world. Let's build this thing!"

"I am the stupidest man in the world." Jim lay down on the couch, Sully perched over him, Ess looking down on him.

"But still the happiest, right, Daddy?"

"Yes, Sul. The happiest, stupidest man in the world." He sighed. Ess shoved the heating pad under his back.

"I kept telling you that you weren't lifting a prop." Ess winced as he shifted and clutched his back. "No vampire strength in the off-season."

"Shut up, would you, my darling?" He said in a sugary voice. "Just let me whine and moan for another fifteen minutes and the shooting pains will stop." Sully kissed his dad on the head before deserting, and Ess exclaimed "awww!" before Jim could shush her.

"Shhh, I don't think he realizes how cute it is, and I don't want him to know. He might stop." He pouted. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

"No. A little-overzealous." She kissed his lips gently. His face didn't clear, as she expected. "What's wrong?"

"I've got to call Anna. She needs to hear it from me."

Sully came in as Jim dialed his ex-wife. "Are you calling Mommy? Can I talk to her?"

"After I'm done, Sully. I have to give her enough information so that she has something to grill you on." Jim smiled ruefully. "I'll call you in a minute?"

"Okay." Sully picked up Stripes and kissed his furry little head before bouncing off after Ess, who was making lunch in the kitchen. Jim retreated to the sunroom.

"Jim? Is something wrong with Sully?" Anna answered the phone.

"Nice to talk to you, too." Jim said dryly. "He's wonderful. He misses you, but he's having fun, playing with his cats, swimming every day."

"Good. What's wrong then?"

"I- uh-" Jim rubbed the back of his neck, and tilted his head back. "I have something to tell you. No easy way to say it."

"You're marrying the girlfriend?"

"Yes." He breathed out a deep rush of air. "Was it that obvious?"

"Actually, no. I figured you liked her a lot if you let Sully get so close to her, but I had no idea you'd propose so soon- what is it- just a couple months?"

"Couple months of dating, yeah. Friends for much longer. I'm sorry, I just wanted to tell you in advance. She's really good with Sully, but she isn't going to try to take your place, and we're not going to try to steal him away. I'd never do that, you know that, don't you?" His voice was soft and reassuring, and her answering reply was brisk. She'd been soft once, but part of the hardness was his fault and he accepted it as such.

"What you do is your business. I'm glad Sully likes her. Can I talk to him?"

"Don't you have any questions? Concerns about-"

"Can I speak to Sully?" She repeated icily.

"Of course. I'll get him." Jim replied quietly. He opened the door to the sunroom. "Sulster! It's Mom!"


Jim moped off, feeling like a jerk, and writhing inside because he knew Ann's coldness would be paradise to Liz's reaction. Ess beckoned Jim to join her in the kitchen as Sully prattled away on the phone. "How'd it go?"

"Steely acceptance and disinterest. Quite well."

"Good." She leaned against him. "You can be my good luck charm then, because I'm calling Matt."

They weren't fun phone calls. But they had someone to lean on in the aftermath, something that made it worth going through. Then, in the end, something to remind them why they were doing it...

"Lion King or Beauty and the Beast?" Ess asked. Supper was over, and the three of them were crashed in the basement, all on one couch. Jim's arm was around her shoulders, and Sully was sprawled on his side across both their laps.

Jim put his finger to his lips and pointed down to his son. "The new play set wore him right out, poor guy. Plus all the excitement of the sleep over." Jim stroked the brown locks lovingly. "I'll carry him up."

"No!" Ess seized his elbow. "Just- leave him." She gave Jim a shy look, a tiny wistful grin playing on her lips. "Just leave him for a little while?"

Jim nodded silently, and scooted her closer to his side. He slowly reached for her hand and drew it up to rest with his, on Sully's back. They sat in silence and watched their clasped hands rise and fall with his deep breathing. "This is my miracle." He whispered.

"I know." She replied with due awe and wonder.

"I'm sharing him with you." He pressed her hand palm down on the small shoulder.

Ess didn't say anything at first. It was hard to talk around the emotion wedged in her throat, like a cork in the neck of a narrow bottle. "I like being in your family." She finally managed to croak out, a single tear escaping and merging with her smile.

"So do I, Baby." She snuggled her head into his shoulder and he reclaimed her hand as it lay atop the sleeping form, the diamond glinting even in the low light of the basement. "So do I."

To be continued...